What fuels heavy metal music? Some might say the Armageddon that is flirting with our world; others, watching the machinations of craven political and religious leaders. We, however, can testify that some of the best music comes from artists suffering for much more personal reasons.
Ben Yaker, the leader of Houston's Sanctus Bellum, an exciting new metal band that played Denton's 35 Conferette this spring and hits Rudyard's Friday, wrote some of the darkest riffs to "Shoggoth's Ascent," the gripping opener of their debut CD, in the midst of studying for the bar exam.
He passed it, by the way, on the first try, showing that some demons were exorcised (or maybe compactly piped into the music).
Onstage, the band runs like clockwork, just like the IRS. But there's more than just precision: There's a camaraderie they came by honestly. The members of Sanctus Bellum are friends, and save one, coworkers at a day job. At a tax firm.
Guitarists Jan Kimmel and Maruice Eggenschwiler also work at the firm, in sales, and are joined at the hip onstage. Their riffs dovetail seamlessly, elevating the music to new heights. Maybe the daytime connection aids the nighttime, when the amps are cranked up?
"There's nothing more metal than a tax lawyer," laughs Justin Waggoner, the band's vocalist and the sole non-tax-firm worker.
That really could be the catchphrase for the band. Rocks Off met them one evening after practice at Waggoner's place, over a shot of Old Smuggler's scotch, soon after they had returned from Denton. Having that swill apparently is their après-practice ritual ("There's nothing more metal than shitty scotch," Waggoner cracks), but their practice pad is elegantly appointed thanks to Julie Waggoner who, if she isn't in interior design, ought to be.
She's given credit in the liner notes of their CD, whose cover art is by the infamous Santos. Waggoner, also lead singer for stoner-rock band Mr. Plow, snagged permission to use Kurt Vonnegut's artwork on one of their CDs.
"And then...he died," Waggoner jokes, living up to the first syllable of his last name.
Waggoner himself is a lawyer, and has done appellate work, which lends itself to yet another axiom: There's nothing more metal than an appellate lawyer?
Here's another potential one: drummer Cory Cousins, who went to Rice with Yaker, has played for the West Virginia symphony. He's so good we are indeed prompted to propose there's nothing more metal than a West Virginian symphonic drummer.
Actually, that last one may be true. But seriously, the band grapples with which metal subgenre best fits. That may not matter to those who instantaneously clap their hands over their ears when "metal" is spoken, much less played, but Sanctus Bellum defies - nay, begs - to be classified. Their music represents "Sabbath's slower moments," Yaker says, on the album Black Sabbath by pre-reality show Ozzy, et al.
The opening of Sanctus Bellum's CD, spurred as it was by Civil Procedure/Torts/Criminal/Ethics sections of the Texas State Bar exam, sounds like doom metal. But "God's Own Warrior" definitely picks up the pace. The CD was recorded and mixed by Houston's Joe Omelchuck of RBI Recording.
"That's why we got kicked out of the doom community," Cousins says. "We play faster than 75 beats per minute."
And Cousins should know the method behind his madness: He's got a master's in music. Amongst them, the band probably has more post-graduate degrees, because after all, nothing is more metal than the color of the tassel on your graduation cap.
That means they've got the smarts to find their own way when it comes to landing gigs, "metal band management/booking" being one of Houston's shortcomings. One of Sanctus Bellum's first gigs (if not the technical first) was the prestigious Stoner Hand of Doom Festival III in Baltimore.
Recently, they found themselves in almost the opposite end of the venue spectrum, when they played a set at the Dunn Brothers Coffee House in the furthest outreaches of Katy. Yes, of all places - but strangely, it worked.
Rocks Off saw that gig. Picture a brightly lit café, replete with cozy touches such as a fireplace, packed to the max with bloody Marshall amps that go to 11, five wailin' musicians and a few dozen metalheads.
Then picture the counter help, smiling stoically while they place drive-through orders through ear plugs. The music was tight and it was a night to remember. Our companion whined about the lack of beer, however. Of the opinion that you want to be up for metal, not down, we tucked in with a delicious latte.
The 35 Conferette, launched a few years back to put Denton - whose university has a strong music program - a bit more prominently on the cultural map, featured bands on its courthouse lawn. (The courthouse is one of the famous ones in Texas, and resembles the Kremlin - which must have been fun during the Cold War Years. We love the juxtaposition of a metal band shredding in front, shown here: [http://roberthart.com/blog/]
"There were some who came out specifically to see us, which was kinda cool," Yaker said, "We sold a couple CDs."
One of the people Sanctus attracted was someone who proclaimed his "uncle played in Skynryd," Yaker said.
Sanctus Bellum may be getting just as much attention outside Houston. Earlier this month (June 3), they played the Liquid Sludge Fest in Austin, with headliners UK doom metal gods Orange Goblin, who played Bonnaroo the following week.
The band is playing Reno's Chop Shop in Dallas in early November, just before they go back into the studio.
Meanwhile, at Rudyard's tomorrow night, they plan to debut a new song, "Vessel," which goes in "a bit of a different direction," says bassist Ben Yaker. A much faster direction, bordering on speed metal, he added. "I don't know that we'll go in that direction again. "But we did it and it's there."
The bandmates seem unanimous regarding fame in metal circles. It would be nice to be signed to a small metal label, they agree, but if not, there's always the love of the music.
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Oh, and what's that other thing that's just as inevitable as death? Taxes.
With Kin of Ettins and Project Armageddon, 9 p.m. Friday at Rudyard's.